Turkey realigning ties with Egypt and Gulf rivals

Turkish and Egyptian officials will gather around a table on Tuesday amid a thaw in relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbours after nearly a decade of mutual distrust and often outright hostility.

The Ankara meeting at the deputy foreign minister level is the second round of Turkey-Egypt talks following May’s Cairo summit, which had been the first direct high-level discussions between the countries since 2013.

The contact is the latest between Turkey and the Arab states it fell out with in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw anti-government movements across the Middle East and North Africa unseat a number of longtime rulers and threaten others.

Turkey, which backed groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood, saw its chance to seize a leading role in the region and pressed Arab regimes to reform in the face of popular protest.

Instead, many of those it supported suffered setbacks and Ankara found itself isolated.

In Egypt, a wedge was driven between the two countries in 2013 when military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Turkish ally.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also emerged as strong rivals to Turkey as both saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their ruling dynasties.

Differences with the Saudis were highlighted following the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointed the finger of blame at de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (also known as MBS) inner circle.

Turkey also became embroiled in Libya’s civil war in 2019, backing the UN-recognised administration in Tripoli while Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the other side.

An Egyptian, Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini blockade against Turkey’s ally Qatar from 2017 also added to tensions with Ankara. The resolution of the Gulf crisis earlier this year removed a major impediment to reconciling divisions.

Last week, Erdogan spoke by phone to UAE leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, two weeks after hosting the UAE’s national security adviser.

Although Erdogan and the Saudi crown prince are yet to talk directly, the Turkish president discussed improving relations with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in May.

‘Aggressive’ post-Arab Spring approach

Analysts said a change in the region’s dynamics had created an atmosphere of rapprochement between Ankara and its former adversaries.

“After the Arab Spring uprisings, the mood was completely different,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre for Turkish Studies. “The Arab regimes’ threat perception had peaked, popular uprisings were bringing down autocratic regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood was on the rise.”

That led to the adoption of “an aggressive, security-orientated approach” that viewed Turkey as a major threat, she added.

Signs of a US retreat from the region, highlighted by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, also shattered faith in Washington’s regional role.

Combined with the realisation that the aggressive post-Arab Spring foreign policy ventures were not working, this led the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians to adopt a more diplomatic approach.

“Now they think, ‘OK, we live in a region where the US is not going to be present and the security-orientated approach didn’t produce the results we wanted,’” Tol said.

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